You may have heard that John Dehlin is going to a church disciplinary council on January 25th. You may have heard about it because The New York Times finds the Church’s membership practices important enough to report on.
If you’re anything like me, you heard about it because John Dehlin was a trending topic on Facebook. But public excommunications can be complicated and fraught. Here are nine questions and responses you may be having to the news.
Who is John Dehlin?
If you’re not too tied in to the “bloggernacle” (a series of LDS themed blogs) the name John Dehlin may not mean much to you.
Dehlin has a significant online audience. He began two influential sites MormonStories.org and StayLDS.com, the latter which is no longer updated regularly. MormonStories.org, however, has continued to grow. The site is a series of podcasts, most of which are downloaded 50,000 times, some have been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
Why is Dehlin In the News?
Despite the error in the New York Times, John Dehlin has not been excommunicated. He was called into a church disciplinary hearing. Church disciplinary hearings are rarely advertised, Dehlin has a large following, and has made information about his disciplinary hearing public. Because of these factors, the story is news worthy.
*The New York Times has since corrected their error.
Wasn’t Dehlin Being Excommunicated at the Same Time as Kate Kelly? What Happened?
Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, was excommunicated in June of 2014. Kelly and Dehlin both began the process of Church discipline at the same time, so because they share some of the same views, many articles spoke about their experiences at the same time. Kelly chose to become defensive and immediately take the matter to a church disciplinary council, while Dehlin began to work through the repentance process with his stake president.
That process now seems to have broken down. Church discipline is individualized and intended to help each person come closer to Christ. Dehlin and Kelly have gone through the process in different ways, and at different speeds.
Church Discipline is Private. Why are We Talking About it?
The Church does not reveal details about church discipline, but individuals are free to talk about their experience.
Because Dehlin has put his experience out, many people will be talking about it, so some members of the Church may wish to make their voice heard on the matter.
Why is Dehlin Being Excommunicated?
First, let’s be clear about what is actually happening. Dehlin is being tried in a church disciplinary council for apostasy. If the council finds that Dehlin has apostatized from the church, then he may be disfellowshiped or excommunicated. When a member is disfellowshiped, he or she loses some privileges for a time, such as taking the sacrament and holding a calling. Excommunication is a complete loss of membership in the Church.
The heart of the question, though, is why Dehlin is being called to a church disciplinary hearing. According to a blog Dehlin posted on his Mormon Stories site, he is being excommunicated because of his support for LGBT causes, women ordination, and doubts about orthodox theology.
But the letter Dehlin’s stake president sent him in August, which Dehlin published, tells a different story. In this letter the stake president explains the reasons for moving toward a disciplinary hearing. These reasons include:
- He stated on his popular blog that the existence of God is very unlikely.
- He stated on his popular blog that Christ’s divinity is very unlikely.
- He stated on his popular blog that the restoration of the Church is not credible.
- He stated on his popular blog that the Book of Mormon is fictitious.
- He became an ordained minister of another faith. (It’s important to note that according to The Church Handbook of Instruction, joining another church is automatic grounds for a Church disciplinary hearing.)
Dallin H. Oaks defined apostasy in three ways:
1) Open, public, repeated opposition to the Church or its leaders.
2) To teach as doctrine something that is not Church doctrine after one has been advised by appropriate authority that that’s false doctrine.
3) To affiliate and belong to apostate sects.
Dehlin appears to have acted in all three ways.
Does Dehlin Want to be a Member of the Church?
By all accounts he wants to remain in the Church. Dehlin has long advocated for the Church to be more welcoming to those who don’t believe all of the Church’s truth claims.
However, Dehlin’s stake president gave him a list of steps he could take to complete the repentance process, end his informal discipline, and become a member in good standing. So Dehlin had the means to remain a member of the Church if he wished.
After reviewing Dehlin’s process on those steps, his stake president chose to hold the disciplinary hearing.
Is the Hearing a Mere Formality? Has Dehlin’s Excommunication Already been Decided?
Stake disciplinary councils require 15 participating priesthood holders. Six high councilors ensure the individual’s interests are represented, and each individual on the council speaks in favor of justice and fair treatment.
After conferring, the stake presidency then through thoughtful decision and prayer comes to a decision about the outcome. So while it’s possible that the members in the stake presidency already have strong opinions one way or the other, every opportunity will be given to change their minds.
I Share Some of Dehlin’s Feelings. Is There a Place for Me in the Church?
The best answer is probably, but that’s a decision for you and your priesthood leaders. Remember, Dehlin is not being disciplined for disagreeing with the Church on political issues or for asking questions or for doubting truth claims.
Dehlin isn’t even being disciplined because he disbelieves basic LDS doctrines such as God lives, Jesus Christ is His Son, They restored Their church through Joseph Smith, and The Book of Mormon is the word of God.
He is being disciplined because he used an extremely popular forum to advertise these beliefs and convince others to share them. His site had the readership the size of 50 stakes! So while Dehlin did not participate in physical protests like Kate Kelly, he was actively involved in undermining the faith of Latter-day Saints. In addition, he committed apostasy in the most basic way–joining another church.
This is very different behavior than those with doubts, or contrary political beliefs, or those whose beliefs are not entirely orthodox. All those are welcome in the Church.
Many members of the Church rightly admire Dehlin’s similar Christlike welcoming of those at every stage of belief. But rather than fostering the faith of those he welcomed, Dehlin undermined their faith. This is a major distinction from those members who simply share his opinions.
How Can I Discuss My Doubts Online?
Many see Dehlin’s disciplinary hearing resting essentially on him persuading his online readership about his personal doubts. So how can other members discuss their honest doubts or unorthodox beliefs online without fear of reprisal? There are a few ways to stay safe while being honest about your beliefs online:
1) Don’t persuade others to share your doubts.
2) Remain humble, and deferential to church leadership. Remember the Lord told Isaiah that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We can be honest about our thoughts, while remembering that we may not always be correct.
3) Ask the kinds of questions that will bring assurances of your faith, rather than looking for evidences to tear down your faith.
4) Remember Elder Oaks’ definition of apostasy “Open, public, repeated, opposition to the Church,” anything short of this standard is not grounds for excommunication.
It is certainly a tragedy when any member of the Church faces excommunication for apostasy, but Dehlin’s individual disciplinary council is for him as an individual, it is not a widespread indictment on any group of Church members.